Psychopath and sociopath are popular psychology terms to describe violent monsters born of our worst nightmares. Think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) and Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). In making these characters famous, popular culture has also burned the words used to describe them into our collective consciousness.
Most of us, fortunately, will never meet a Hannibal Lecter, but psychopaths and sociopaths certainly do exist. And they hide among us. Sometimes as the most successful people in society because they’re often ruthless, callous and superficially charming, while having little or no regard for the feelings or needs of others.
These are known as “successful” psychopaths, as they have a tendency to perform premeditated crimes with calculated risk. Or they may manipulate someone else into breaking the law, while keeping themselves safely at a distance. They’re master manipulators of other peoples’ feelings, but are unable to experience emotions themselves. (Post continues after gallery.)
Sound like someone you know? Well, heads up. You do know one; at least one. Prevalence rates come in somewhere between 0.2% and 3.3% of the population.
If you’re worried about yourself, you can take a quiz to find out, but before you click on that link let me save you some time: you’re not a psychopath or sociopath. If you were, you probably wouldn’t be interested in taking that personality test.
You just wouldn’t be that self-aware or concerned about your character flaws. That’s why both psychopathy and sociopathy are known as anti-social personality disorders, which are long-term mental health conditions.
What’s the difference?
Psychopaths and sociopaths share a number of characteristics, including a lack of remorse or empathy for others, a lack of guilt or ability to take responsibility for their actions, a disregard for laws or social conventions, and an inclination to violence. A core feature of both is a deceitful and manipulative nature. But how can we tell them apart?
Sociopaths are normally less emotionally stable and highly impulsive – their behaviour tends to be more erratic than psychopaths. When committing crimes – either violent or non-violent – sociopaths will act more on compulsion. And they will lack patience, giving in much more easily to impulsiveness and lacking detailed planning.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, will plan their crimes down to the smallest detail, taking calculated risks to avoid detection. The smart ones will leave few clues that may lead to being caught. Psychopaths don’t get carried away in the moment and make fewer mistakes as a result.
Both act on a continuum of behaviours, and many psychologists still debate whether the two should be differentiated at all. But for those who do differentiate between the two, one thing is largely agreed upon: psychiatrists use the term psychopathy to illustrate that the cause of the anti-social personality disorder is hereditary. Sociopathy describes behaviours that are the result of a brain injury, or abuse and/or neglect in childhood.
Psychopaths are born and sociopaths are made. In essence, their difference reflects the nature versus nurture debate.
There’s a particularly interesting link between serial killers and psychopaths or sociopaths – although, of course, not all psychopaths and sociopaths become serial killers. And not all serial killers are psychopaths or sociopaths.